Comics Ate My Brain

June 17, 2008

Spirits of the Times: Will Eisner’s Life, In Pictures

Filed under: spirit — Tom Bondurant @ 4:49 pm
The Will Eisner anthology Life, In Pictures (W.W. Norton, 2007) contains two substantial graphic novels, two shorter stories, and a vignette, each based at least in part on the personal experiences of the extended Eisner family. Those factual underpinnings help the stories avoid veering into melodrama. Combined with Eisner’s considerable storytelling talents, the book as a whole is a sweeping, powerful survey of the society which shaped him and those he loved.

Of course, I come to Will Eisner’s work largely through his most famous creation, the masked detective known as The Spirit. Eisner used the weekly Spirit stories as vehicles for his own experiments with the craft of writing and drawing comic books. Today, DC Comics publishes a Spirit comic book which at a minimum attempts to capture both Eisner’s designs and the light-hearted attitude which infused most of those stories.

Nothing so portable is on display in Life, In Pictures. The story of interest to most superhero fans will probably be “The Dreamer” (1986), Eisner’s autobiographical account of his early days as a cartoonist. Since “The Dreamer” also covers the birth of superhero comic books, it features thinly-disguised analogues of Harry Donenfeld, Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, Bob Kane, Jerry Iger, Jack Kirby, and other early luminaries. (Detailed annotations follow the story.) This is also perhaps the book’s happiest story in the book. The four-page vignette “The Day I Became A Professional,” which closes out Life, works well as a go-get-’em supplement to this story.

According to editor Denis Kitchen’s introduction, “A Sunset In Sunshine City” (1985), which opens the book, came out of Eisner’s 1984 move to Florida from his native New York City. There, apparently, the biographical portion ends, although apparently Eisner incorporated his changing attitudes about moving. The story begins as a bittersweet remembrance of the protagonist’s long career running a local cafeteria, set against a snowy New York. As the memories wind down, though, Eisner leaves enough hanging that the reader wonders whether the story might shift gears; and sure enough it does, following our hero to his sunny retirement home and a different set of concerns. At twenty-eight pages, it’s shorter than any of the other “big” stories, but it also does the most with its small cast. Characters win and lose the reader’s sympathy, until everything finds an appropriate equilibrium at the end.

Perhaps the book’s centerpiece is “To The Heart Of The Storm” (1990), Eisner’s 204-page tale of family history. As Eisner rides the train which will take him to boot camp, and from there to the horrors of World War II, his memories reveal his family’s struggles with anti-Semitism. Some give up their faith, some try to coexist, and some simply try to see the good in people. Through it all, Eisner manages his large cast well, connecting generations efficiently and using the view through the train’s windows to set the flashbacks’ scenes. Even the flashbacks-within-flashbacks avoid being confusing. While the reader might learn to expect the worst, somehow the family perseveres, and of course the reader is assured by Eisner’s own success.

Following that tale is the slightly shorter (167 pages) “The Name Of The Game” (2001), Eisner’s fictionalized account of his wife’s family history. This is the book’s most soap-operatic story, dealing with the constant struggle of German Jews to improve their status in life through marriage. Eisner jumps forward in time, and fills in background, with blocks of text, which only distracts from the story in the introduction of one character. The main character is the family’s patriarch, seen first as a spoiled brat who grows into a stereotypical rich dilettante and must have responsibility practically shoved down his throat. Indeed, he looks better as the story progesses primarily because the people around him regularly act just as bad. This is also a tale of struggle, although it’s a struggle to keep up appearances. It too achieves a kind of equilibrium, but the story’s statement that the characters lived “happily ever after” is clearly meant ironically.

Speaking personally for a moment, I can’t finish many “real-life” Will Eisner stories without having to sit and think about them for several minutes afterward. I don’t want to dismiss any of this book as simple melodrama, because that implies that Eisner is manipulating the reader unfairly. Nothing about these stories strikes me as frivolous or gratuitous. With each story, Eisner knows the points he wants to make and makes sure each page reinforces those points. Characters cheat, drink, lie, and steal. Some receive an appropriate comeuppance, and some don’t. Through it all, though, the reader becomes involved with their lives, even as he can see Eisner’s hands guiding them through those lives. I’m glad I got to know these folks, and glad they could bring me closer to a creator I’ve long admired.

New comics 6/11/08

Booster Gold #10 (written by Geoff Johns and Jeff Katz, pencilled by Dan Jurgens, inked by Norm Rapmund) feels a little “off” to me, and I don’t quite know why. It’s probably because there’s so much going on. Rip Hunter narrates for a couple of pages, with his Chalkboard Of Destiny (TM) distracting the reader in the background. Booster takes over as the scene switches to the scrum with Max’s forces … and here, I think, is where things get too overloaded. Essentially the rest of the book takes place in and around a big superhero fight involving — get ready — a reunited Justice League International (including Guy Gardner, the good Doctor Light, J’Onn J’Onzz, and Batman); Superman; Max Lord; the original version of Despero; the white-ape Ultra-Humanite; Per Degaton; Black Beetle; Ted “Blue Beetle” Kord; Maximillian (the evil Skeets); Booster and his dad; and the Mystery Villain. Oh, and I forgot the interlude with Rip and the time bubble.

Johns and Katz and Jurgens do their best to break out of the fight the important character-based scenes involving Booster and his dad, the Beetles, and the sidekick droids; but even so, there’s still a lot going on in the background. In other words, the scenes aren’t put in perspective like they should be, so the rest of the players feel like distractions and/or afterthoughts. What’s more — and I admit this may be just me — I couldn’t remember the non-sacrificial function of the vehicle for the eventual heroic sacrifice. (Said sacrifice plays out like Wrath of Khan, or the last Lone Gunmen appearance, by the way.) There’s a sacrifice, but I don’t know what else it accomplished. We’ll find out next issue, I guess.

Anyway, it’s not a bad issue, and it may well play out better in context. It’s just a frustrating installment for this month.

Most of The Last Defenders #4 (written by Joe Casey, pencilled by Jim Muniz, inked by Cam Smith) finds Nighthawk on the wrong side of just about everybody, as the term “non-team” starts to take on its most literal meaning. I thought it was fine, but once again, there’s a lot going on in the background which apparently only has two issues to resolve itself.

Star Wars: Rebellion #14 (written by Jeremy Barlow, drawn by Colin Wilson) wraps up the current story arc with a lot of action, and a little denouement. There’s a suggestion that Luke and Deena Shan are a little sweet on each other, and since this is the interstitial period leading up to Empire, I’m all for anything which gets him away from those understandable-but-creepy-in-hindsight feelings he showed for Leia. I have to admit I’m not as up on my Expanded Universe characters as I should be, or else I’d probably be more sympathetic to them. Still, I can accept how the narration builds Deena up, and I always like seeing spaceship combat. Once again the art reminds me of Howard Chaykin’s early SW work from thirty years ago, except the brief glimpse we get of Han seems a little too paunchy for the whip-thin Harrison Ford of 1977. Pretty good if you’ve been with this story the whole way; probably better the more you know.

This month in Batman Confidential (#18 written by Fabian Nicieza and drawn by Kevin Maguire), Batgirl and Catwoman inch that much closer to making X-rated Internet fanfic mainstream, as they spend the first 10 pages naked from the neck down, fighting in a nudist club. The fact that Maguire draws Babs with all these extremely uncomfortable expressions and retreating body language doesn’t make it better. If last month was an excuse for cheesecake, this month drops the pretense … uh, as it were. As much as I like him, Maguire’s figures are just rendered too literally for this extended sequence to be farcical. Maybe someone with a softer style could have pulled it off (what?!? sorry!) better. Cliff Chiang’s “Naked Ollie” chases from Green Arrow/Black Canary come to mind, so Chiang or his designated replacement Mike Norton might have done well with this. Anyway, everyone puts their clothes on for the rest of the issue, and I presume the rest of the story. (There’s only so many opportunities to play the nude card.) It’s pretty entertaining, especially since it focuses on puppies. I am not kidding. It’s almost like DC felt like it needed to atone for the nearly-nude scenes with, yes, puppies. So, in summary, come for the cheap thrills, stay for the puppies!

(P.S. DC, if you use that as a blurb, I’d at least like a free copy of the paperback.)

The “Barbarian Queen” scenes in Wonder Woman #21 (written by Gail Simone, pencilled by Aaron Lopresti, inked by Matt Ryan) are fine, but I want to mention the Sarge Steel/Tom Tresser bit which opens the issue. On its own it’s good: a typical “walk with me” scene which sets up a few familiar conflicts and advances the plot. However, these are two well-established spy characters who, by virtue of their respective careers, should interact on a higher level. Tom “Nemesis” Tresser had his own backup series in The Brave and the Bold, teamed up with Batman a couple of times, and was in the Suicide Squad; and Sarge Steel was Charlton Comics’ answer to Nick Fury. So if this scene involved, say, Dirk Anger and Jimmy Olsen, it’d be easier to take.

As for Wonder Woman, her posse of ’70s DC barbarians continues to grow, along with the savagery of her fights. “Losing her grip” is, I think, a fairly radical direction for the character, because it seems like most writers want to portray her as always in control, diplomatic, etc. However, it’s still a valid direction; and I think Simone has presented it well. Diana’s finding out what she’s like without the fundamental sources of her strength. The art in the “barbarian” section is also tighter and darker, with more attention paid to the blacks and a more washed-out color palette (credit colorist Brad Anderson for that). Add a couple of callbacks to Simone’s first arc and it makes for a good issue.

Green Lantern Corps #25 (written by Peter J. Tomasi, pencilled by Patrick Gleason, inked by Drew Geraci) presents the origin of the Black Mercy plant. It’s a sensible, space-opera-y origin which maybe brings in Mongul a little too neatly, but it sends the story in a very Star Trek direction. New inker Geraci fits well with Gleason’s pencils, giving them a little more definition in places and even putting a “cartoony” sheen on some of the figures. There’s a misplaced word balloon on page 2, and there’s more foreshadowing about different-color lanterns, but other than that it’s pretty good.

About half of Green Arrow And Black Canary #9 (written by Judd Winick, pencilled by Mike Norton, inked by Wayne Faucher) features Plastic Man, with the other half showing Speedy and the British guy fighting super-powered bad guys. Thanks to Norton and Faucher, it’s all portrayed with a light, breezy tone, which certainly makes some of Speedy’s quips easier to take. Norton and Faucher draw a good Plastic Man too — perhaps even nicer than what cover artist Cliff Chiang might have done. The issue builds to a couple of Dramatic Reveals: the bad guys’ employer (which is pretty obvious) and the next guest-star (also not unexpected, but not unwelcome either). I continue to like this book.

Action Comics #866 (written by Geoff Johns, pencilled by Gary Frank, inked by Jon Sibal) is a heck of a start to the latest Brainiac storyline. The Daily Planet newsroom welcomes Steve Lombard, sports brute; and welcomes back noted innuendophile Cat Grant. Frank and Sibal really lay on the Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder references for Clark and Lois, but it’s all good. (Cat looks like she had a familiar model too, but I can’t place her.) However, the showpiece of the issue is Brainiac’s abduction of Kandor, shown in flashback (naturally) with references to General Zod and Brainiac’s Kryptonian origins. To say that Brainiac now = Borg + Alien wouldn’t do it justice. It’s cold, scary stuff which sets up his threat level very well. Still, there is a bit of Borg plotting in place: Superman defeats a pawn, but the “king” is still out there….

Trinity #2 (written by Kurt Busiek, pencilled by Mark Bagley, inked by Art Thibert) finds the Trinitarians battling personalized threats: rogue solar systems, giant robots, and a mystical metropolis. It’s nice to see each handle their own in the space of a few pages or so. Meanwhile, in the second story (written by Busiek and Fabian Nicieza, pencilled by Tom Derenick, inked by Wayne Faucher), Green Lantern John Stewart fights Konvikt and Graak in a sleepy Massachusetts town square. So far Trinity looks like superhero comfort food, and if it continues like this I suspect I won’t have too many bad things to say about it.

Finally, here’s Titans #3 (written by Judd Winick, pencilled by Joe Benitez, inked by various people), a frustrating installment of a series which has yet to define itself. Benitez’ art has personality, but he doesn’t have a handle on these characters. I hate to go all fanboy, but in an early pedeconference scene, all the characters are the same height. At the very least Starfire should be the tallest, but in a long shot she looks shorter than the Flash. Likewise, Beast Boy and Raven should probably be the shortest. These aren’t just stylistic choices, they inform the characters’ personalities.

The plot of the issue involves the Titans pairing off, with unfortunate results. While there’s an in-story explanation, the sad thing is that the book has already established its willingness to “push the envelope” with regard to these characters, so we don’t know how much of their behavior was provoked. I’m not saying the Titans should always be hugging, but Winick hasn’t done much to lay a foundation for their normal behavior. I’d like to think this book will find its equilibrium sooner rather than later, but it might not happen for a few more months.

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